A recent long Popular Science article looks at Sierra Sciences and its founder, a group that has been working on telomere biology and its role in aging for some years. Alongside a number of other research groups, the Sierra crowd believe that telomeres are a lynchpin portion of our biochemistry and manipulating them might significantly extend life.
Make poor lifestyle choices, and you're likely to die of heart disease or cancer or something well before your telomeres would otherwise become life-threateningly short. But for the aerobicized Andrews, for anyone who takes reasonable care of himself, a drug that activates telomerase might slow down the baseline rate at which the body falls apart. Andrews likens the underlying causes of aging, free radicals and the rest, to sticks of dynamite, with truncated telomeres being the stick with the shortest fuse. "I believe there's a really good chance that if we defuse that stick," he says, "and the person doesn't smoke and doesn't get obese, it wouldn't be surprising if they lived to be 150 years old. That means they're going to have 50 more years to be around when somebody solves the other aging problems."
Telomeres, you might recall, are the frayed ends of our chromosomes, there in order to prevent problems during cellular replication - though more correctly they might be thought of as one portion of a more complex and regulated system that touches upon many cellular processes. You can't consider telomeres in isolation from the behavior of the telomerase enzyme that acts to rebuild telomere length, for example. Telomeres appear to erode away over a lifetime in many tissues, and their length in immune cells correlates decently with general health and levels of stress, shortened telomeres go hand in hand with increased cancer risk, and there's some interesting interplay between telomere length and levels of mitochondrial damage - both implicated in aging, and we might suspect these two things to be aspects of the same underlying process, though that remains a theory that can be argued either way at this time.
It would be hard to argue that telomeres are anything other than connected to aging - but are they a lynchpin that can be manipulated alone, in absence of other therapies, to significantly extend life? I am a skeptic on that count in the sense that I don't think the evidence presently in hand wholly supports that view. If you look at the most beneficial example of telomere manipulation in mice, a 50% life extension was achieved by combining genetic manipulation of p53 and telomerase levels together - but telomerase has a range of other potential effects on metabolism beyond affecting telomere length. I am not aware at this time of a study that categorically shows benefits accruing because of telomere length versus because of any other effects of telomerase - such as, for example, acting to protect mitochondrial DNA from damage, which in turn protects telomeres from shortening.
The bottom line for me is that this is certainly a line of research worth chasing further - there are a range of experiments that show benefits from telomerase therapies, such as improved immune system function, for example. But is the telomeres, or is it something else that's the important underlying mechanism? Either way, Sierra Sciences ran out of money for research in the end and now seems to be removing itself from the game through a mechanism we've sadly seen before, which is to get into bed with the supplement industry. I cannot think of a small company that has done this and remained a serious contender in advancing the state of medical science - the end result more often looks like the protandim debacle, in which whatever interesting scientific work once existed is abandoned and its echoes used to promote herbal compounds sold with a garnishing of lies. From the Popular Science article:
The stock-market crash of 2008 nearly wiped out two investors who had until then been his primary funders. Without the money to continue refining the nearly 40 telomerase-activating chemicals he and his team had already discovered, Andrews made the decision last September to cut a deal with John W. Anderson, the founder of Isagenix, an Arizona-based "network marketing" supplement company. This month, Isagenix will launch an anti-aging product containing several natural compounds that Sierra Sciences has verified to have "telomere-supporting" properties.
So you're basically looking at the genesis of another set of worthless products and magical thinking that apes the scientific method while rejecting everything that makes it work - just like most of the rest of the "anti-aging" marketplace. And beside that, another set of names who might have gone on to do good work will instead never be taken seriously again. Which is sad, given that they had a better vision of the necessary strategy for longevity science than most of the scientific community.